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A New Waziristan

Not long ago, North Waziristan Agency was known only for bombs and bullets. Terrorists controlled the area and called the shots, the writ of the government was non-existent and the green and white Pakistani flag was only visible flying over military compounds or a few State buildings

Things have now come a long way. The Pakistan Army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb to wipe out terrorists and their networks in the troubled tribal areas of the country. The operation, launched on June 15, 2014, has restored peace and order in the once restive territory.

Today, the agency presents a new look with multi-storied plazas, carpeted roads, model villages, playgrounds, clustered housing communities and state-of-the-art vocational training centres. It appears to be the dawn of a new era of peace and prosperity for the tribesmen returning to their homes, as normality returns to the scenic valley.

I remember very clearly when I first visited the Miranshah bazaar in 2007. Back then, a stranger like myself would have been easily singled out among the locals while strolling through the makeshift rows of shops situated on both sides of the road. But now, moving through the Miranshah city did not feel any different from any up-market area of Peshawar, Lahore or Karachi.

The successes achieved by the Pakistan Army has not only restored peace in the area, but has also led to a revival in its economy

Plans to roll out a network of carpeted roads throughout the North Waziristan Agency shows the dedication engineers have put in, to change the face of the area. However, it still has a long way to go to reflect the developed cities we see in the West.

For locals, it looks like the tribal belt – once home to the Haqqani network, the much dreaded Uzbek and Tajik terrorists, the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, several Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan splinter groups, including the Punjabi Taliban and foreign actors such as Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban – is finally en route to peace and development.

In the words of General Officer Commanding Major General Hassan Azhar Hayat, there are no longer any ‘no-go’ areas in the valley; one can move around freely as the days of kinetic operations are over and a beginning of a new story for Waziristan is underway.

Taking down terrorists

According to military statistics, in 2008, one-third of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) was under control of terrorists, but gradual targeted operations led to the clearance of these areas, forcing the militants to start flocking to their last safe havens in North Waziristan Agency.

At that time, Pakistan was considered a fragile state, where a series of negotiations were being held with the terrorists. The subsequent failure of these negotiations ultimately led to the decisive Operation Zarb-e-Azb aimed at reclaiming the last bastion of North Waziristan, predominantly inhibited by 59 percent Waziris and 38 percent Daur tribesmen, with scores of sub-tribes and clans.

Before the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Mir Ali town in the North Waziristan Agency had 72 terrorist hideouts; whereas in the tribal belt’s headquarters, Miranshah, there were more than 86 terrorist compounds.

A majority of government services such as schools, telephone exchanges, dispensaries and hospitals were all under the control of terrorists. Dattakhel, which was considered the nerve centre of the local and foreign fighters, had 55 bases, while in the mountainous valley of Shawal, eleven major terrorist bases were operational – some of which still need to be secured.

Peace always comes at a price, and Pakistan’s war against terrorism is no exception. Thousands of security forces’ personnel and citizens had to lay down their lives. In its operations in the tribal belt, the Pakistan Army combined strategies from two previous wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

‘Seek and Destroy’ was the order of the day during the Vietnam War, whereas ‘Clear and Hold’ was the strategy adopted from battles in Iraq. Major General Hayat thinks it was because of these tactics that barring a few pockets in Shawal and Khyber Agency, the rest of the tribal areas have been fully secured and declared free from terrorists.

In the process of successfully reclaiming the State territories, at least 706 Pakistani soldiers sacrificed their lives, while 2,907 were injured. The terrorists killed during these decisive battles were 2,872, with more than 2,000 in North Waziristan Agency alone.

At least 1,777 arrests were made, whereas 1,588 terrorists laid down their arms and surrendered to the State. Explosives seized during the operation stood at 210 tonnes – sufficient enough to make 31,000 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and thousands of suicide vests. Meanwhile, the arms and ammunition seized from the agency would have done well to equip at least 30 infantry brigades.

Restoring life

The operations in the valley have diminished threats to Pakistan’s security to a large extent, but there are still a few challenges such as cross-border attacks that need to be taken care of.

The Pakistan Army has been countering these challenges through intelligence-based operations, effective border management, rehabilitation programmes, capacity building for the Frontier Constabulary and Levies personnel, restoration of economic activity for locals, empowerment of the agency’s women and youth, and the much-needed FATA reforms.

Since January 2016, around 6,206 intelligence-based operations were conducted in FATA and KPK, which led to the arrest of 14,000 miscreants as Operation Zarb-e-Azb transformed into Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, aimed at eliminating the residual threat of terrorism across the country.

Peace always comes at a price, and Pakistan’s war against terrorism is no exception

The North Waziristan Agency, like the rest of FATA and some parts of KPK, has had to face the horrors of war for a long time, which cost the region a decline in economic activity.

Even though largely clumsy and unplanned, the Miranshah, Dattakhel and Mir Ali bazaars used to serve as the hub of economic activities, which came to a standstill after the military went to war against the terrorists. Scores of shops in these markets were held by terrorists, who were taking in a fair share of the region’s trade.

The successes achieved by the Pakistan Army has not only restored peace in the area, but has also led to a revival in its economy.

The transformation of North Waziristan Agency into a modern town was visible from the multi-storied shopping plazas on the rubble of Miranshah bazaar – which according to Major General Hayat will be a six-phase, Rs. 678 million project with modern services such as a car park, an underground telephone and communication network and sewerage lines.

It will replicate the shopping malls in Karachi or Islamabad. Major General Hayat revealed the plans of handing over the shopping plaza to the war-hit locals with the consultation of tribal elders and the area administration.

Aikamkhel market, Alikhel market, Pakistan market, Tori and Boya markets are a few other major business centres which have replaced the destroyed makeshift structures.

The model village of Sarbanki, near Miranshah, which has everything that a modern town should have: parks, playgrounds, Jirga halls, community centres, women’s vocational and training centres – which for many living in the dusty mountainous town, would only have been a fantasy a few years ago, is now a reality.

The newly-built Younus Khan Sports Complex, without exaggeration, could be termed as one of the country’s best modern stadiums, not only because of its lush green grass and playing area, but also due to its design.

Age of development

As Pakistan is headed towards reconstructing the war-hit region, which involves huge expenditures, the planners are spending Rs. 3,180.79 million for immediate rehabilitation. In the Annual Development Programme (ADB) 2016-17 scheme, Rs. 1,642.62 million have also been allocated for the region.

Planners say permanent reconstruction of the area would cost approximately Rs. 8,843 million. Much of the agency’s development is linked to a 10-year FATA Development Plan, wherein Rs. 100 billion a year would be reserved for uplift activities in the tribal areas.

FATA, because of its remoteness and poor communication network, remained out of the administrative ambit for a very long time. In the wake of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and other kinetic operations, the troubled region saw massive development of roads. At least Rs. 54.597 billion was spent on building 673 kilometres of roads across the region, interlinking the inaccessible valleys.

In North Waziristan Agency alone, 224 kilometres of carpeted roads were built, while construction of another 261 kilometres are on the anvil – including two significant roads, Razmak Road and Ghulam Khan Road, connecting major towns in the valley as well as Afghanistan, which are considered key to the economic revival of the agency.

In post-war FATA, 351 water supply schemes have been restored, with 149 in North Waziristan Agency alone.

Moreover, five micro-hydel power projects have been initiated in North Waziristan Agency, whereas 29 other such projects are in the process of being installed across FATA. About 2,452 acres of waste land in the agency has been reclaimed, while 26.3 kilometres of water channels de-silted, with the Pakistan Army engineers having ploughed 32,235 acres of land, enabling the tribesmen to meet their food needs on their return.

More than the infrastructure, the tribesmen say, they care about restoration of their tradition and culture

The process of the return of the temporarily displaced persons (TDPs) to the valley has signaled the revival of life in the once restive region. So far, 94 percent of the TDPs have returned home, 95 percent of the North Waziristan Agency is de-notified and cleared, but there are a few areas where the threats of IEDs and militants still loom large.

During the war, at least 6,000 families had migrated to safe places in Afghanistan, who are also in the last stages of their return and would be heading towards their homes after getting their registrations done at Bakakhel camp near Bannu. These measures are expected to boost the confidence of locals in the administrative authority of Pakistan.

The political administration and the military have jointly taken drastic measures for value-added farming, poultry production and fish farming. Exploration campaigns to find minerals, oil and gases in the agency have been launched to look at new avenues which could boost the region’s economic activity.

Furthermore, four Golden Arrow Army Public Schools, which are equipped with the latest educational services, have been set up and would be replicated in other parts of North Waziristan Agency and FATA.

To help women who lost male relatives during the conflict and now have no source of income, the government has established four state-of-the-art vocational training centres in Miranshah, Mir Ali and Razmak. Kitchen management, e-commerce, modern embroidery and knitting, along with traditional handicraft, appeared to be a great source of attraction for the Waziristani women.

The government expected a low turnout when it first rolled out the plan, but to its surprise 150 applications were received for 40 seats. Pakistan Army’s Major Umair says the strength in these centres is now over 130, and the government plans to establish an additional 35 similar vocational training centres in other towns of the region.

These training centers could turn out be a good source of income generation for women affected by the war and operations, and could go a long way in earning livelihood for their families even without leaving their homes.

It would be difficult to contest the ground reality and the official narrative of return of peace and normalcy to North Waziristan Agency, but the local tribesmen, who have lost their homes and businesses, feel it is too early to celebrate and that the road to complete success is still plagued with thorns.

More than the infrastructure, the tribesmen say, they care about restoration of their tradition and culture.